A happy memory of a highly enjoyable class with guest teacher Brian Bertscher. The two hours began with a thoroughly warming barre, starting slowly and building in speed, with challenging balances and precision. In the centre port de bras and adage explored épaulé lines, followed by pirouettes with luxurious balancés, bouncing petit allegro combinations and an exhilarating Prokofiev waltz to finish. Brian communicated both rigour and infectious enthusiasm. Hopefully to be repeated before long…
Regular ballet classes at URC finish this Saturday 27th August for a summer break, however for one additional day I am delighted to welcome as special guest teacher my old colleague the irrepressible and inspiring Brian Bertscher. Brian will be teaching an extended intermediate/advanced class on Saturday 3rd August from 11.00am to 1.00pm; expect lots of joyous dancing. This 2 hour class will cost £15. Not to be missed!
A brief biography:
Brian Bertscher started ballet classes at the age of seven in Johannesburg South Africa and joined the Royal Ballet School London at the age of seventeen. While there he also studied Cecchetti ballet and received the Advanced Exam certificate.
Between 1964 to 1979 Brian danced with the Royal Ballet and was a popular soloist with the Sadlers Wells Royal Ballet. His roles included Puck in Ashton’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and the virtuosic Blue Boy in Les Patineurs. He also excelled in ballets by John Cranko playing Jasper the Potboy in Pineapple Poll, and Little Clown (Bootface) in The Lady and the Fool.
1979-1980 Brian studied on the Professional Teachers Training Course at the Royal Academy London. From 1980-2010 he was Professor of Classical Ballet at the Folkwang University of the Arts in Essen, Germany, and has taught internationally for ballet schools and companies. Since 2010 Brian has been living and working in London, currently teaching regular classes at Morley College.
Find out more about Brian’s life and work here: https://brianbertscher.com/
Find full address details for the URC (Summertown United Reformed Church Hall) on the Classes page of this blog.
In 2016 I collaborated in the revival by contemporary dance company Yorke Dance Project of Kenneth MacMillan’s Sea of Troubles, of which I had been an original cast member when it was made for our small independent ballet company Dance Advance in 1988. Following the success of Yorke Dance’s revival of this intense late work, Deborah MacMillan gave her blessing for the company to tackle reviving MacMillan’s Playground, an earlier and larger work. Originally commissioned by Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet to be shown as part of an all MacMillan programme alongside Concerto and Elite Syncopations, it premiered on 24th August 1979 at the Edinburgh Festival. It was subsequently shown at Sadler’s Wells and on tour, possibly with further performances into 1980; but it did not remain in repertoire long.
MacMillan had stepped down from his directorship of the Royal Ballet in 1977, thus giving himself time to concentrate on choreography and the headspace to tackle some uncompromising and difficult subjects. In 1978 as well as the full length Mayerling, he also created the darkly mysterious My Brother, My Sisters for John Cranko’s Stuttgart Ballet, which was taken into RB repertoire early in 1979. Around this time he was much struck by Blue Remembered Hills – Dennis Potter’s play filmed for television, in which adults portray children playing games which go wrong. MacMillan’s interest in family and childhood relationships was influenced both by his own memories of his mother who had suffered fits, and of his elder brother and sister; as well as his observations of his own daughter Charlotte, then aged 6 years, playing with her friends. Having been impressed by Gordon Crosse’s orchestral score, he began creating with an idea based on the Orpheus myth; but soon opted instead to develop his own narrative drawing on more personal concerns which included his own fears of madness and being sectioned. The resulting work has seemed to have something of the claustrophobic, enclosed ambience of his early work The Burrow.
How does one revive a work which has not been seen for 40 years? At the Dance Scholarship Oxford (DANSOX) conference on MacMillan held on March 16th 2019 company director Yolande Yorke-Edgell and I discussed some of the challenges in bringing a little known work back to life. Luckily the ballet had been recorded in Benesh Notation by Grant Coyle while the choreographer devised it. There were also two 1979 videos of distressingly poor quality, one taken in the rehearsal studio in the summer before the company’s holiday break, and one on stage at Sadler’s Wells in early autumn after the premiere. Not only was it hard to distinguish the dancers but there were evident discrepancies between versions, demonstrating how in the interim the work had evolved and changed in performance. Reconstruction of the ballet from the score and video sources involved notator Jane Elliott working closely with Yorke Dance rehearsal Director Edd Mitton in a huge painstaking labour. Original cast members Stephen Wicks, the “Vicar”, and myself as one of the ensemble and second cast “Mother”, joined with them to retrieve our deeply sunken memories of the piece and our embodied experience of working with MacMillan on it and in other ballets, bringing our instinctive responses to interpreting the material as it emerged again in a new generation of dancers. We were all alive to the negotiation needed between these tenuous sources, trying to find a version that would best honour and truly reflect the work.
But as well as striving for authenticity reconstruction for Yorke Dance inevitably meant substantial adaptation and accommodation to different circumstances. Playground, made for a full-scale ballet company, originally had a cast of 18. Yorke Dance could field a maximum ensemble of 8 dancers; so it was decided to supplement the professional dancers with vocational students in the ensemble. The work had been premiered in the Big Top and toured to large scale theatres, with a substantial set and costumes by designer Yolanda Sonnabend; Yorke Dance tour dates are mainly for intimate venues with auditoria often of a mere couple of hundred or less and small stages, thus necessitating a lighter more portable redesign by Charlotte MacMillan herself, and in some places a slimming down of dancer numbers.
From a musical perspective too this revival was far from straight forward. SWRB performances had been accompanied by live performance of the score by the company’s full time orchestra, an option out of the question for a company of the scale and budget of Yorke Dance. A piano reduction had been prepared and used for original rehearsals, but although valuable as a working document for analysis and insight into musical structure it could hardly do justice in performance to the colourful orchestration with its vibrant use of percussion, not least clapping by both musicians and dancers. A recorded score of the full version used for the ballet did not exist; it was thus necessary to create one digitally, a work of miraculous technical sophistication. A residual problem was the question of how then to synchronise dance sequences involving live clapping with recorded music, often with different metric patterns and without the intermediary of an orchestral conductor.
And then the dancing itself. Playground incorporates both naturalistic and gestural movement with balletic solos and pas de deux. SWRB was a classical company; even MacMillan’s most experimental and expressionist works were grounded in his innate understanding of ballet technique, and made use of the skills and mastery afforded to dancers used to working on a daily basis on pointe. In rehearsal it became apparent how some of Playground’s danced passages, even in their distortions and characteristic moves of falling back or off balance, were rooted in a confident mastery of ballet technique, and needed to be approached as such. Although its members have had extensive classical ballet as part of their training Yorke Dance is essentially a contemporary company dancing mainly in bare feet; the company’s director Yolande Yorke-Edgell’s work is flavoured by her experience of working with contemporary masters such as Robert Cohan, still in his nineties making new work for the company, Bella Lewitsky and Richard Alston. The Yorke dancers have impressed immensely by their professionalism and ability to encompass within one programme such different movement styles and genres of work.
Because of the gestural and naturalistic movement content of Playground it was very possible for female members of the ensemble, and even the powerful figure of the Mother originally created by Siobhan Stanley and recreated here by Yorke Dance’s own authoritative Freya Jeffs, to eschew pointe shoes without undue alteration of the dance material. But pointe shoes were essential for the central figure of the “Girl with make-up” and the convoluted and extraordinary content of the two central pas de deux, original created for the expressive lines of tiny poignant Marion Tait with strong and experienced partner Desmond Kelly. To embody Tait’s role the company has brought in as guests two adventurous classical dancers capable also of integrating into performance of the company’s new Cohan work, Communion; Oxana Panchenko whose wide experience has included working for the BalletBoyz and Michael Clark, and Romany Pajdak, granted occasional leave of absence from the Royal Ballet to work with Yorke Dance. Kelly’s role as the Youth is shared by passionate company dancer Jordi Calpe Serrats and award winning guest Jonathan Goddard.
For the student dancers a particular challenge was the need to be “present” in performance for a very long time without apparently doing very much. Enclosed by the forbidding wire fencing of an urban playground, the whole cast is on stage for the entire length of the work’s 27 minutes. Although many of the original dancers were young when it was made, all had experience of being on stage in large classical ballets; and some also in longer MacMillan works where the corps de ballet were not necessarily always a uniform dancing ensemble but a more naturalistic crowd whose members responded individually to the action. This work presents a challenge of stagecraft, the ability to sustain character and atmosphere without being too busy and distracting from the central development of relationships between the key characters; an exercise in the selection of telling detail and the value of stillness. MacMillan’s choreographic design has a strong almost cinematic sense of foreground and background; as his biographer Jann Parry describing Mayerling puts it: “Without being able to resort to close-ups, MacMillan knew how to focus an audience’s interest on the important characters. The minor ones, true to the Royal Ballet’s acting tradition, played out their sub-stories on the periphery.” (Parry 2009 p499)
Another dilemma for the revival team was how much to forewarn the dancers as to the nature of the piece. Ever inquiring and curious, MacMillan regularly drew choreographic inspiration and influence from other sources; theatre, TV drama, history, even current affairs. But he didn’t discuss or reveal his sources or talk about them in the Playground rehearsal room, or, apart from a brief quote, give credit to them in programme notes. I speculate that this may have been in part a shrewd protective policy for the avoidance of being held to any acknowledged sources and judged against them in a very literal way; his method rather to absorb them and let their influences mix and emerge, leaving him free to develop story line or character, pick and choose what to draw on and what not. He did not tell the dancers what Playground was about – this was apparently also true of My Brother, My Sisters before Playground. In the early stages he himself conceivably didn’t know how the work was going to develop and finish. We were not told until well into making the work that we were not children by which time a certain character and environment had formed. But how to respect this method working in hindsight, when we all know what the outcome will be? How much to tell the cast about what will happen in the piece? How much to make explicit the shared but unspoken communal knowledge of its original cast? Here the impossibility of recreating the original working situation involved in the making of a work in all its unknowing emergence calls for sensitive handling, if the cast are to be able to discover authentic and fresh performances of their own rather than dutifully copy the past.
In coaching, where to draw the line between accurate following of the choreographic text as manifested in original interpretations, and allowance for the individuality of today’s performers? MacMillan was a keen observer of people, selecting his casts for particular idiosyncracies, and drawing perceptively on their personal and dancerly characteristics which remain embedded in the choreography, making his use of balletic material rich and strange. A subtle work of interpretation is required to decipher this from the inevitably drier documentation of the notation; in coaching Stephen’s and my knowledge of the original dancers and rehearsal situation could perhaps shed useful light on the very real characters behind the roles and the qualities informing their dancing to help new casts build their own equally powerful interpretations.
Not only did the working circumstances of this remounting differ radically from when it was first made; but also the cultural climate and environment of its reception. When first performed, although some audiences were impressed by its powerful and disturbing vision, others were repelled by its unflinching exposure of a subject little spoken of, and its refusal as a ballet to be conventionally beautiful. Perhaps driven by concerns about scaring away those audiences coming to the ballet primarily for entertainment rather than uncompromising and thought-provoking experience, this uncomfortable work was allowed to fall out of repertoire. Nowadays with greater public consciousness and understanding of mental health issues and bullying it seems that audiences are more ready to be confronted and moved by its vision of an enclosed community with its games, absurd rules, role playing, rivalries and cruelties. Showing it in more intimate settings has arguably heightened its impact, with smaller, closer audiences almost included in its claustrophobic environment, physically aware of the intensity and detail of the performers’ lived experience at close quarters. Working on this timely revival has reconfirmed my admiration for MacMillan’s great abilities as a ground breaking choreographer, his ability to use balletic material to tell powerful stories, his bold expansion of the possibilities of the form, and his skill in drawing out dancers to create unforgettably vivid characters and situations.
Yorke Dance Project’s revival of Playground premiered at Pavilion Dance South West in Bournemouth on 31st January 2019. Following a tour with performances in Winchester, Barnes, Leeds, Frome, Banbury, Salisbury and Swindon as part of the Company’s Twenty: Anniversary Programme, it will also be performed in the Clore Studio at the Royal Opera House as part of the company’s season there from 14th to 17th May 2019; further details here.
3rd May 2019
With grateful thanks to Pari Naderi for allowing use of her photographs of Yorke Dance’s revival of Playground in rehearsal and performance.
Parry, Jann (2009) Different Drummer: The Life of Kenneth MacMillan London, Faber & Faber
Find out more about Yorke Dance Project here
See below for a schedule of BiSS ballet classes at URC from now on until the end of April, and the beginning of next term. Please read carefully to take note of any changes! Although I will be not be teaching over the second half of March I am delighted to confirm that classes will continue pretty much uninterrupted, thanks to wonderful colleagues Ségolène Tarte and Lisia Newmark.
Saturday March 16th: No classes because of DANSOX conference
Monday 18th: Adult beginners 4.15-5.30pm, Intermediate 5.45-7.15pm taught by Ségolène
Thursday 21st: Advanced 10.00-11.30 taught by Lisia Newmark plus 11.30-12.00 optional pointework
Saturday 23rd: Adult beginners 10.00-11.15am, Intermediate/advanced 11.30am-1.00pm taught by Ségolène
Monday 25th: Adult beginners 4.15-5.30pm, Intermediate 5.45-7.15pm taught by Ségolène
Thursday 28th: Advanced 10.00-11.30 taught by Ségolène
Saturday 30th: Adult beginners 10.00-11.15am, Intermediate/advanced 11.30am-1.00pm taught by Ségolène
Monday 1st April: Adult beginners 4.15-5.30pm, Intermediate 5.45-7.15pm taught by Ségolène
Thursday 4th: Advanced 10.00-11.30 taught by Lisia plus 11.30-12.00 optional pointework
Saturday 6th: Adult beginners 10.00-11.15am, Intermediate/advanced 11.30am-1.00pm taught by Ségolène
I will resume teaching as normal from Monday 8th April up to and including Thursday 18th April. Because of Easter there will be no classes on Saturday 20th and Monday 22nd April. So the summer term of classes will start officially on Thursday 25th April with new material for adult beginners from Saturday 27th April, and continue on the usual schedule from then. I will teach on Mondays 6th May and 27th May despite the Bank Holidays and will not take a half term break.
For those of you on the waiting list for a place in the Saturday adult beginners’ class, I will be in touch nearer the time to confirm whether you can start from Saturday 27th April.
Next term Saturday pointe work
Over the summer term I propose to extend the Saturday intermediate/advanced class with an additional half hour of pointe work 1.15-1.45pm starting from Saturday 27th April. This is entirely optional and would cost an additional £4. It is open not only to those already with some experience of pointe work but also to those who would like a chance to explore this more advanced work on the demi-pointe. Please do let me know if you are interested in attending this.
For those of you that do not already know Lisia Newmark you can read her biography below. It is lovely to have her back here teaching, bringing a wealth of professional experience. And you can find full information about Ségolène on her blog here.
Lisia trained as a ballet dancer in Perth (Australia) with Sylvia Barnes, Diana Waldron and the Perth City Ballet.
In Europe Lisia danced with the Brno State Ballet (Czech Republic), Wiener Ballet Theatre (Germany), and in the Salzburg Festival (Austria). She then joined Independent Ballet Wales (UK) where she remained for ten years as Principal Dancer. Lisia performed the title roles in Cinderella, Giselle, Red Riding Hood and The Lady of the Lake as well as Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Juliet in Romeo and Juliet, Olivia in Twelfth Night, Carabosse in The Sleeping Beauty, and Kate in The Taming of the Shrew.
Lisia regularly returned to Perth as Principal Guest Artist for Perth City Ballet’s productions of The Sleeping Beauty (1997), Carmen (1998 and 2007), Don Quixote (2002), and Coppelia (2006). In 2005 Lisia was Guest Artist for the First Physical Company in Grahamstown, South Africa, where she also taught company class. In 2008 Lisia performed in The Solos Project at the Burton Taylor Theatre, in a solo choreographed by Susie Crow.
As a freelance ballet teacher, Lisia has taught at Rhodes University Drama Department (South Africa), John Curtin College of the Arts (Australia), and locally for Freefall Dance at Oxford University, East Oxford School of Ballet, Oxford Academy of Dance and St. Edward’s Oxford.
Looking back on the last day of 2017… This site has been very quiet this year; but even if artistic production and performance has been less in evidence there has been significant BiSS activity of other sorts, both study and teaching…
Having formally presented to the Roehampton dance research community in November 2016, in the New Year I submitted an initial chapter and a summary plan of my dissertation for examination by my Director of Studies Emilyn Claid, supervisor Geraldine Morris and Internal Examiner dance philosopher Anna Pakes. A viva on these submissions in May happily confirmed my upgrade in the PhD progress; the green light to go ahead and write. Read More
Delighted to alert you to the news that Ségolène Tarte has confirmed that she will be teaching a new ballet class on Tuesday evenings at Mortimer Hall in Marston, starting from 26th September, and every Tuesday evening until (and included) 19th December, see below for full details. Ségolène has been an inspiring presence in URC classes both as a dancer and more recently as a teacher, drawing on her European training background to bring an enriching and distinctive flavour to her classes. A great addition to Oxford’s ballet teaching provision – enjoy!
18.15 – 19.45 Advanced adult ballet @ Mortimer Hall (OX3 0PH)
She will also consider doing an improvers/intermediate adult class if there is sufficient demand.
The price for a class will be £10 pay-as-you-go.
Mortimer Hall is a lovely village hall with a sprung floor. There is an area for changing in the adjacent room, although no showers, and full access to the kitchen. It is located at the Marston end of the Marston Ferry Road at 40 Oxford Road, Old Marston, Oxford OX3 0PH.
There is space for parking in front; it’s in easy cycling reach of the city centre and Summertown, using the cycle path along the Marston Ferry Road; it is also accessible by bus: 14A (stop: Old Marston Library), and 14, 700, X3, X13, S7, and S5 (stop: Cherwell Drive).
Ségolène requests that those interested in coming along to the advanced class, or in a possible improvers/intermediate class, should contact her with any queries: email@example.com.
Other classes she will be teaching on a regular basis this term:
Wednesdays at Rye St Antony [OX3 0BY] (for Penny Cullerne-Bown’s East Oxford School of Ballet) [1/2 term break dates tbc]
Fridays at URC [OX2 7HN] (for Paula Nattrass’s Oxford Academy of Dance) [1/2 term break dates tbc]
And here is a short biography for those interested in knowing a bit more:
Ségolène Tarte studied ballet with Geneviève Guillée, of the Paris Opera Ballet, at the “conservatoire municipal du XVe – Frédéric Chopin” (Geneviève danced with the Paris Opera Ballet company for 20 years, reaching the grade of “grand sujet” in 1961; she further sat as a panel member on the jury of the Paris Opera Ballet company’s annual internal promotion contest in the 1980s, whilst teaching at the conservatoire). Ségolène pursued her ballet training in Berne (Switzerland) with Ivana Halamka (soloist at the Prague Chamber ballet, at ballet Karlsruhe, then ballet mistress at the Berne Statdttheater Ballet) and joined the semi-professional company City Ballett Halamka for 5 years where she danced a number of solos, whilst completing a PhD in Biomedical Engineering. In parallel with pursuing her academic career, working as a Digital Humanist in close collaboration with Classicists at the University of Oxford, Ségolène’s move to Oxford in 2008 has seen her debuts as a choreographer, improviser, and ballet teacher. She has shown her work at various venues in Oxford, including at the Pegasus Theatre and the Old Fire Station, and teaches for a number of well-established dance schools in Oxford. Drawing on her training in the French School of ballet, through her ballet classes, Ségolène strives to share the joy of movement and the subtleties of intention through movement. Her favourite technical foci are: presentation and articulation of the feet and lower legs; fluidity and breath in the movements of the upper body; and precision and clarity in the orientation of the body in space.
Looking back on the review of 2015, 2016 didn’t work out quite as expected – but in a year of global upheaval that is perhaps hardly surprising…
Following on from Two old instruments, an amazing opportunity had presented itself in December 2015 to work with Baroque musician Evelyn Nallen on a recreation of what could claim to be the first dramatic ballet in which a story was told without recourse to words, but through dance and mimetic gesture. John Weaver’s The Loves of Mars and Venus was premiered on 2nd March 1717 at Drury Lane. His original scenario survives, and Evelyn and dance historian Moira Goff had used it as a base to put together a score of suitable period music; the idea to recreate the work incorporating some authentic dance material of the period but to reset ensembles and the gestural scenes, which Weaver had originally “attempted in imitation of the Pantomimes of the Ancient Greeks and Romans”. This fascinating project was set to be unveiled on the 300th Anniversary in a truly period magnificent setting with a team of 14 dancers, 7 musicians and an actress. Unfortunately despite our best efforts and heavyweight support from some big names including Dr Richard Ralph, Weaver’s biographer, we were unable to raise sufficient funds; and ultimately lost our venue through factors beyond our control. The project has now morphed into an intimate play with music and authentic dance “Mr Weaver’s Dramatick Entertainment”, but I am sadly no longer involved. I will however keep you posted of performances of what should be a very enjoyable celebration of a truly notable date in the history of ballet. Read More